Friday, December 10, 2010

"You now have Siegfried's life on your hands!", or, The Perils of the Reviewing Life

What better way to close out a week that saw the publication of a new issue of the Quarterly Conversation than to offer up a couple of tidbits about the perils of reviewing?

First, a wonderfully catty letter that Lytton Strachey sent to Virginia Woolf on February 21, 1917:
That wretched woman, the Lady O[ttoline] Morrell writes to me as follows--"Do you think you could write to Virginia, & ask her if she could get Sassoon's book of Poems, and if she would review it kindly. . . . I think if he heard that his work had 'Promise' it might make him want to Live--to do things in the Future. But it is all ghastly and he can hardly bear it. Shall I shoot Lloyd George?"

It is indeed "all ghastly", and probably you could hardly bear it. but you see that you now have Siegfried's life, to say nothing of Lloyd George's, on your hands. I suppose you don't as a rule review what they all "poetry". Perhaps if you wrote to Richmond [editor of the TLS] suggesting that the bloody book should be noticed, it would suffice. Or what?--Let me know so that I may send some reply to that creature, who is now I think almost at the last gasp--infinitely old, ill, depressed, and bad tempered--she is soon to sink into a nursing-home, where she will be fed on nuts, and allowed to receive visitors (in bed).
I like to think I always take my responsibility to an author seriously when I write about a book, but good god--to have not just the fate of his book but his very life placed on your shoulders! That's pressure!

And it looks as if it worked--at least so far as getting her to review the book: she wrote a piece for the Times Literary Supplement titled "Mr. Sassoon's Poetry" on May 31, 1917, and another called "Two Soldier-Poets" in 1918. Whether she came through with sufficiently fulsome praise I won't know until I dig up the appropriate volumes of her essays . . . but whatever her verdict, the notice seems to have been sufficient to achieve Ottaline Morrell's ends: Sassoon found a way to hold on for a few more years, dying in 1967 at the age of 81.

Anthony Powell, so far as I know, never told any stories of such grave weight being placed on his reviews, but he did acknowledge the frustrations of churning out reviews in an interview that ran in the Paris Review in 1978:
Do you still do any reviewing?

Yes, I do two pieces a month for the Daily Telegraph.


You don't find it a chore?

On the contrary, I find it extremely stimulating. I get two really pretty serious books a month--and I must say they're extremely good at trying to give me something that I like--and I really think it's rather good for you to have to review, say, a book about the organization of the Roman Army in the first half of the month and then the life of Christina Rossetti in the second. So far from being bad for you, I think it's very educative and it really makes your mind work. In fact, as I said before, I'm really rather lost now if I don't have something like that that I've got to do. . . . But of course there are demoralizing forms of literary journalism, and I've done my stint of reviewing five novels in a column and so on. You know how it is: Your friends say, “Are you mad saying this terrible book is quite good?” But you can't week in, week out keep saying this is all absolute rubbish.
Ah, the benefits of being a blogger: I'm never so pressed for space or copy as to be forced to praise inferior books. If something turns out to be rubbish, I can just reshelve it in silence and spend my time instead telling readers of books they might actually enjoy.

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